It’s easy to get critical about what the modern world does with Christmas. What is a most holy 12 days in our Christian faith is transformed into a two and a half month shopping spree. All Santa and sleigh bells… little church, and even less Christ.
Ramping up before Thanksgiving, All Saints Day, even Halloween, the consumerist melee of ads and sales eclipses the ancient prophets’ troubling challenges to a world that fails the poor and leaves children hungry. All the cold realities of Jesus’ day and our own– a young girl in trouble, no room for either the homeless or for those far from home, a baby born into a world unwilling to care for him, a young family hunted by a leader’s jealousy and government authority — are frosted over with Currier and Ives or Thomas Kincaid images of cozy warmth and unfailing light.
Department stores stay open extra late, credit cards get maxed out, over-burdened to do lists grow even longer. Is this what God meant? And all for what? Too often it ends with the inevitable disappointment — even the exact gift you wanted turns out to be less gratifying than you had expected.
As cut off, even out of control as the popular celebrations of Christmas get, they remind me of popular pieties of the middle ages. The Catholic Church had restricted participation in the Eucharist to the clergy. That left the people out, waiting in the congregation, uninvolved in the sacred ritual. They filled the void by inventing their own folk pieties.
I wonder if the misunderstanding or “mis-emphases” of our modern celebrations of Christmas have to do with the churches not being out among the people? Maybe North American religious life’s decreasing following accounts for the disconnect most people have from the church’s tradition and the “orthodox story” (never thought you’d hear me advocating for orthodoxy?)? Or at least the church’s significantly smaller sphere of influence has made it easier for commercial and business agendas to interpret the story according to their bottom line interests.
What am I suggesting? A couple of years back, the Still Speaking Initiative was pressing for another national television ad run during the Christmas season. Financial constraints precluded the commercial’s airing. But Still Speaking made a very important point: Christmas, as loosely focused as its popular celebration can often be, is the only time in the year where our society at large broadcasts overtly Christian themes. As misguided as the representations can sometimes feel, it is a rare moment when our culture references, and at its best, even promotes some of the Christian story.
Maybe rather than being critical about North America’s secular Christmas, we need to become proactive. Could our job be to creatively help our world interpret more meaningfully the themes of Christmas?
Just last evening, the night supervisor for the shelter downstairs was telling me with real excitement about a lecture he attended where Christmas story was fleshed out in the context of colonial occupation and the suffering occasioned by imperial exploitation. There is much more to the story than Rudolph or a hallmark card whose “Peace on Earth” rings a little hollow. Who else but the church can be expected to tell the whole story and tell it well?
Christmas is the holy time when our society helps out with the promotion of our faith (much more than say at Easter). Let’s take advantage of that context. Christmas Eve is the one time of the year that you can invite someone to join you at church without worrying that you come off as some fanatical zealot. Who can you invite to our Christmas Eve service?